Bringing the Big Guns on Missile Defense

Op-eds from Secretaries Gates and Clinton addressed some critics' concerns with plans to scrap the missile shield

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With Republican 2012 hopefuls attacking Obama's missile defense move, observers last week looked for fault lines within the administration. "I have no idea where Hillary Clinton is on all this," Foreign Policy's Thomas Ricks noted on Friday. "Am I wrong or is she floundering in her job?" As it happened, the secretary of state clarified her position in a Sunday op-ed for the Financial Times. Defense Secretary Robert Gates weighed in with the Pentagon perspective in Saturday's New York Times.

The op-eds aimed to answer questions about the missile-defense policy--but they raised nearly as many as they answered. Clinton sought to reassure nervous Central European nations; Gates emphasized that the missile shield was being modified, not abolished. Columns in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times unpacked--and on some points refuted--administration claims on the new missile plan's superiority and its relevance to relations with Russia. Here are the secretaries' key points and some notable responses:

  • We're Not Scrapping Missile Defense  On Saturday, Gates asserted in the New York Times that "the new approach to European missile defense actually provides us with greater flexibility to adapt as new threats develop and as old ones recede." The advantages of the new system, which relies on"airborne, space- and ground-based sensors," include "more accurate data ... more early warning and tracking options, and ... stronger networking capacity." The new system would also provide protection sooner.
  • "This Decision Was Not About Russia" Hillary Clinton said. She elaborated on the foreign policy implications: "[This] was about Iran and the threat that its ballistic missile programmes continue to pose." She also emphasized the U.S.'s close relationship with "allies" Poland and the Czech Republic:
We will continue to co-operate closely with both nations and both will have the opportunity to be closely involved with missile defence. I want to underscore that we are bound together by our common commitment as NATO allies, and also by deep historical, economic, and cultural ties that will never be broken.
  • Oh, Yes it Was  Challenging Clinton's contention that the move was not about Russia, think-tanker Ilan Berman, writing in the Wall Street Journal, cited an earlier U.S. offer to Russia--leaked by the Kremlin last February--to scrap the missile shield in return for "greater Russian cooperation on Iran." The earlier plan, he noted, was endorsed by the Congressional Budget Office as the "best" plan "in a series of realistic alternatives."
  • This Could Deepen a Rift Within NATO  The New York Times' Roger Cohen raised the knotty issue of NATO politics. Last year’s Russia-Georgia conflict highlighted to Western governments the burdensome side of the mutual defense agreement. Had Georgia been a NATO member, the allies would have been obligated to go to war. But the mutual defense agreement is as “sacred” to NATO’s Eastern members as it is troublesome to its Western ones, Cohen noted. With Obama snubbing the Polish and Czech governments on missile defense—possibly as a gesture to Russia—Eastern European fear of insufficient protection as NATO “redefine[s] its ‘Strategic Concept’ for the 21st Century” can only grow.
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